Of the many disappointments in this EU referendum campaign, the utter failure of the British press to discharge its basic professional duty stings worst of all
A well-functioning, free press is essential to the health of a democracy.
Rigorous journalism, conducted with integrity, is the lifeblood of a vigilant, engaged citizenry – without it, the people cannot make informed decisions and corruption, incompetence and decay quickly begin to corrode good government.
The current EU referendum should therefore be a great test for our nation’s media elite, and reveal whether or not the British press are fulfilling their essential function. After all, here is an absolutely existential question facing the nation – do we stay in the European Union or do we leave? There are many interweaving areas to consider – trade, foreign policy, defence, national security, trade, immigration, the economy. And there is the temporal aspect – what is awkward or uncertain in the short term may have huge benefits in the long run, and vice versa. In every respect, this is a big, meaty issue for Britain’s finest journalistic minds to wrap their heads around.
Of course, no one journalist or publication can perfectly embody all of the great journalistic characteristics of fearlessness, impartiality, scepticism and rational enquiry all the time. That much is not possible, nor expected. We are all human beings and we all have motivations and core beliefs which give us blind spots or encourage us to take mental shortcuts. That’s normal. But at the macro level, if our democracy were in good shape, by now we should see an accumulation of evidence of rigorous enquiry by the media class. Even in a media market where newspapers and websites make no claim of impartiality we should still see evidence of lies being exposed, truth being searched out and upheld, and assertions constantly questioned.
This holds true even when the quality of the discourse itself – in this case driven by the two official campaigns on each side of the EU referendum – is poor, as is very much the case with the fearmongering establishment Remain campaign and the unhinged, loose cannon Vote Leave. Bad ideas are bad ideas and false statements are false statements, whether they come from the shouty man on Twitter or an oleaginous SW1 spokesperson. Therefore, bearing the imprimatur of establishment authority should make one more open to questioning, not less, and there should always be a healthy scepticism of authority and social status.
So are we currently passing the test? On this most important of issues, has the British media been doing its job properly?
It hardly needs stating that the answer is a resounding “no”. In fact, the quality of coverage has fallen incredibly short of the standard we should expect from a healthy democracy – but then, our democracy is hardly healthy. Or particularly democratic. Tthis is not a criticism of any one journalist or publication – though there are several whose deserve full and individual criticism for their groupthink, confirmation bias and craven deference to power. But for the purposes of this blog post we will focus our attention on the overall national media output.
And the best way to see how the media have fallen short in their EU referendum coverage is through their utter lack of curiosity about a plan for Brexit. This is particularly odd given the fact that the SNP government’s weighty tome outlining a plan for Scottish independence provided such rich pickings for journalists during the 2014 referendum. As time dragged on and on, one might have reasonably expected calls in the press for the release of a Brexit plan to have reached a loud crescendo, eventually forcing the hand of the official campaign.
But no – when it was high handedly decided that having an actual plan for what to do after the referendum would be stupid because it would (shock horror) invite scrutiny, there was barely a peep from the media. Vote Leave were allowed to get away with fighting this most rare and consequential campaign without so much as a list of bullet points scribbled on the back of a napkin. Yet you will struggle to find one television or newspaper interview where senior Vote Leave figures (or Leave.EU figures prior to the designation decision) were put on the spot about their lack of an agreed plan.
And yet a Brexit plan exists, and has done for several years. It’s called Flexcit and is hosted at the eureferendum.com blog authored by Dr. Richard North, one of Britain’s foremost authorities on the history and workings of the European Union. Now, it may not bear the stamp of the Westminster bubble, but it was at one point being considered for adoption by Leave.EU (who shamefully decided not to do so because it detracted from the simplistic anti-immigration, economically illiterate message which is working such wonders for the Leave campaign at the moment).
And yet does this warrant the slightest attention from the Westminster media? Apparently not. Besides a vaguely disparaging article in the Herald Scotland, you won’t find a single mention of it by name in a major UK newspaper, let alone on television. Those columnists and pundits who know of Flexcit (and thanks to many ordinary supporters and a large web footprint it is hard to miss in a Google search) and support the plan are forced to make murky allusions to it, because openly mentioning the one citizen-authored plan for leaving the European Union would mean the torpedoing of that article before it ever saw the light of day.
This is a plan which was originally drawn up as an entry to an official competition organised by the IEA, and which has now been downloaded nearly 100,000 times. It isn’t some child’s finger-painting stuck lovingly to the fridge door with a magnet – it is a serious piece of work. And yet even as Britain debates the merits of leaving or staying in the EU and the process by which Brexit might occur, apparently no “household name” Westminster journalist has considered it worthwhile to write about the only comprehensive Brexit plan in existence.
Why the media blackout of Flexcit? One can only speculate – but none of those speculations lead to a very pleasing conclusion. Some journalists and publications overlooking Flexcit might be accepted as a very odd act of omission. The entire Westminster media stubbornly refusing to to mention Flexcit while hanging on every word uttered by Boris Johnson begins to look like a conspiracy of silence. Particularly since The Leave Alliance – the network of Brexit campaigners united under the Flexcit banner (this blog is a member) – has twice met right under their noses in prestigious central London locations.
In fact, if you want to see a serious mention of Flexcit and the staged withdrawal from the EU advocated by the Flexcit plan, one has to look in the American media – Andrew Stuttaford has twice written about Flexcit while covering the EU referendum for the prestigious conservative journal National Review, meaning that American readers are perversely better informed about the most comprehensive (and likely to be adopted) plan for leaving the European Union than most British people.
Take a moment to let that sink in. Britain is having a great national debate about whether and how to leave the European Union. There exists a comprehensive plan for doing so, which is particularly relevant now because one of the Remain campaign’s chief attack lines is that Leave supporters don’t know what Brexit looks like. But if you want to read about this plan, you will have to rely either on the American media or the small but dedicated army of citizen journalists and bloggers who promote it, because nobody in the British media cares to report on something of material significance to the campaign.
You don’t need to be a fully paid-up Brexiteer to realise that there is something profoundly wrong with this picture. Surely, if there exists a properly thought-out plan for how Brexit might work, it would be in the public interest to mention this plan? Maybe a couple of SW1’s finest journalists might take a few hours out of their busy day to skim the 400 pages and form an opinion, heck, even contact the author with a few questions. But apparently not. If it wasn’t dribbled into a microphone by Boris Johnson – a man who had not even decided that he wanted Britain to leave the European Union a few short months ago – the British media don’t seem to think it is worth covering.
Stuttaford’s latest National Review piece says what the British media will not:
David Cameron’s predictably dishonest ‘Project Fear’ is working predictably well.
The best way to counter it is to show that Brexit is, economically speaking, manageable, and the best way to manage it (there are alternatives) is by joining the European Economic Area—doing a Norway, to use the shorthand. It’s dull, and that’s the point: Dull is reassuring. Signing up for the EEA also recognizes the reality that, after decades of British entanglement with Brussels, leaving the EU is a process, not one bold break, however much romantics might wish otherwise.
Over at EU Referendum, Richard North has, as I have mentioned before in this Corner, been making this point for years (his EEA-based ‘Flexcit’ plan remains—for anyone who wants to get into the details—an essential read).
I have always thought that Brexiteers would be the underdogs in this referendum. That’s how it has turned out to be, but if those who want out of the EU want to have a shot of winning this thing, they have to show that they have come to grips with the ‘how’ as well as the ‘why’ of Brexit. Their version of ‘how’ will not necessarily be definitive, but the fact that it is being articulated will go quite some way to reassuring an understandably nervous electorate that its concerns are being thought through.
[..] Like it or not, Johnson is the most prominent ‘face’ in the Leave camp. He needs to start talking about a Brexit route with enough substance to it to reassure the anxious. Arguing that the UK has the economic and political clout to cut a good economic deal with its future former EU partners is not crazy, but it is not enough to convince nervous voters to take the Brexit ramp. It looks too much like wishful thinking. And what voters want to hear is evidence of serious thinking.
We can talk until we are blue in the face about the many failings of Vote Leave. And when the history of this campaign is written, they will rightly come in for much criticism for failing to embrace a comprehensive, risk-minimising Brexit plan like Flexcit. But a rigorous press should and would have discovered Flexcit without needing it to be trumpeted by Boris Johnson or slapped onto the side of Nigel Farage’s battle bus. Professional rigour should have seen to that much, or even (one would have hoped) natural curiosity.
The fact that the one rigorous Brexit plan in existence has played almost no role in the national referendum discussion to date is damning evidence of the British media’s lack of interest in rigorous reporting, and strong preference for covering the personality-based, tit-for-tat human drama. And one can understand the temptation. Reading through a 400-word tome about how to withdraw from the European Union while maintaining economic stability is soooo boring, especially when one could be writing breathless gossip pieces about how Michael Gove’s wife and Samantha Cameron have fallen out over their husbands’ divergent views on Brexit. Why do the serious research and analysis when it’s far easier – and generates far more precious web traffic – to report on the latest incendiary nugget to fall from the… mouth of Boris Johnson?
Here, Pete North says it best:
As present, we are only superficially aware that we don’t have democracy because we are missing an essential component of a healthy democracy – a free and inquisitive press. It is not that the state censors our media, rather it censors itself largely to appease advertisers and corporate cronies. In that regard the government does not need to censor the British press.
But as much as anything it has lost its essential inquisitiveness. It is concerned only with the entertainment aspect of politics rather than the dreary business of policy. It is for that reason I look forward to the day when our newspapers go the way of the dinosaur. A fate well deserved.
But in having such a dismally inept media, decisions that affect our lives go unnoticed. We are often taken by the idea that government takes sweeping decisions behind closed doors but the ultimate joke is that they are held in the open, transcribed and published on the web. These days the best way to ensure nobody will read something is to put it on the EU website.
Regardless of which side they happen to occupy in this referendum, most thinking people agree that the level of debate has been shockingly bad. Whether it is David Cameron suggesting that it is “immoral” to vote for Brexit (despite having “ruled nothing out” himself during the renegotiation) or Vote Leave insisting that Brexit would free up £350 million every week which they would prefer to spend building a brand new NHS hospital on every street corner, both sides are spewing out misinformation and hysteria, and talking down to the general public in an immensely grating fashion.
If the Westminster media were doing their job, they would not only fact-check the obvious untruths and misrepresentations emanating from both sides, they would also search out and report on the best of Brexit and Remain thinking from outside of the SW1 bubble. Yet it does not seem to occur to them that people who are not currently MPs, journalists, celebrities or the spouses of MPs, journalists and celebrities also have ideas and opinions about the EU referendum. Sometimes, those ideas and opinions are actually quite good. Sometimes – gasp – they are a lot better than what the professional politicians and pundits are saying.
As things stand, Britain is probably on course to vote to Remain in the European Union, based on a campaign in which both sides were reduced to screaming “but the NHS!” at each other until exasperated voters stopped paying attention. Very few of us will go into the polling booth with an understanding of the EU’s history, its strategic impetus and its future direction of travel. Very few of us will cast our vote with so much as a basic understanding of the global regulatory environment and the EU’s (diminishing) role in setting standards. And as the results start to come in, few of us will have voted purely according to the specific question on the ballot paper, which merely asks us whether we want to leave or remain in the European Union.
And to some extent that’s normal. Not everybody can be an expert. Most people have lives, and do not live and breathe this stuff 24/7. But conversely, just as not everybody can be an expert, nobody has to be totally ignorant, either. There is no reason why the British people, at this late stage in the campaign, could not have a better base level of knowledge than we do. There is no good reason why (for example) important terms like the EEA, Single Market and Schengen Area are routinely confused or conflated with one another. There is no good reason why, in a referendum about deciding whether or not to leave the European Union, so few people know about the one comprehensive plan to deliver precisely that outcome. No good reason at all. Yet here we are.
And for this dismal state of affairs you can thank the Great British Media.
You’re doing a heckuva job, Fleet Street.
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